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Qatar Airways CEO calls for aviation fuel overhaul

Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, says sustainable aviation fuel is 'exorbitantly expensive' Reuters
Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker says sustainable aviation fuel is 'exorbitantly expensive'
  • Al Baker says sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) costs too much
  • Airline is buying 25 million gallons of SAF
  • SAF can reduce carbon emissions by up to 80%

The boss of Qatar Airways has called for an overhaul of the sustainable aviation fuel market.

The airline is buying sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) as it seeks to reduce the environmental impact of air travel. However CEO Akbar Al Baker has labelled the fuel “exorbitantly expensive” and says it is only available in low volumes “because the cost to produce is too high”.

“But they don’t realise that, if they do the volume, then they get the economies of scale and they’ll be able to reduce the price,” he told CNN’s Eleni Giokos in the latest episode of Marketplace Middle East.

The International Air Transport Association defines SAF as “fuels derived from non-fossil sources or feedstock”.

It says SAF is able to reduce net carbon dioxide emissions by up to 80 percent, and could account for 65 percent of the emissions reductions required for net zero in 2050.

SAF is approved for use in all aircraft, but only in blends of up to 50 percent with conventional jet fuel. Today, it accounts for less than 0.1 percent of airlines’ fuel use and costs almost three times as much as regular fuel, according to Robin Mills, CEO of consultancy Qamar Energy and AGBI columnist.

In October last year Qatar Airways signed a deal with US-based SAF producer Gevo to buy 25 million gallons of the fuel over a five-year period. Deliveries are expected to start in 2028 at various airports in California.

Under the agreement, Qatar Airways will uplift 5 million gallons of neat SAF every year and blend it with its existing supply of conventional jet fuel.

The partnership is part of its earlier commitment, along with other members of the Oneworld Alliance airline group, to purchase up to 200 million gallons of SAF from Gevo. 

The deal forms one of the pillars in Qatar Airways and Oneworld’s plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050.

Appetite for change

John Grant, partner at UK consultancy Midas Aviation, said the sector’s appetite to adopt SAF was there: “Absolutely – and the airline industry is extremely conscious of its obligations to the environment.”

However, he agreed that issues remain over availability, pricing and the threat of taxation.

“There is very little SAF in production and what supply there is happens to be very localised, certainly not on a global basis, and in many cases that supply has been secured by a small group of airlines so it’s not widely available.”

In January, UAE renewable energy company Masdar, state oil firm Adnoc and oil major BP agreed to conduct a joint feasibility study on exploring the production of SAF in the UAE.

The agreement, which includes Abu Dhabi Waste Management Company (Tadweer) and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, will explore the production of SAF, alongside products such as renewable diesel and naphtha, using municipal solid waste and renewable hydrogen.

Since the first test flight in 2008, more than 400,000 commercial flights have taken place using alternative and traditional fuel blends, according to the Air Transport Action Group.

Mills said: “Airlines need to make firm purchase commitments and work with oil companies to ensure the required volumes are available, scaling up and so reducing costs.”

In February Dubai-based Emirates operated its first flight with one of its engines powered entirely with SAF. 

The flight, which flew for more than an hour, was a showpiece event for the UAE’s Year of Sustainability, which culminates in hosting the Cop28 climate summit.

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